Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Real Thing: Love in a Moment

Can you understand a love story from five seconds of stage time?  Sam Gold's new production of Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing is majorly flawed but the final moment of the show made me well up with tears, delivering a wallop of emotion from an otherwise cold to the touch production.* 

Stoppard's play on love, fidelity, and artifice is brought to life by a literal soundtrack of pop songs.  Playwright Henry is obsessed with words, meaning, and often a cool detachment when it comes to emotion but it's sugary pop songs of the 1950's and 60's that tell us what he feels in his heart. Henry (Ewan McGregor) writes a play which stars his wife Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon) and his friend Max (Josh Hamilton) who is married to actress Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal).  In short order it's clear that Annie and Henry have fallen for each other and the two marriages split apart.  Henry and Annie marry and struggle through their own relationship.  Throughout the entire play there are many music cues and discussions of music within the play.   

But beyond the requirements of the script, Sam Gold foregrounds music in an unexpected way.  Not only does music lead in and out of scenes or end up the topic of conversation, but Gold has the cast sing through scene changes and transitions.  Is this the soundtrack of Henry's mind?  Are these the voices in his head? And in these transitions, Gold stages moments between characters.  They see each other and contribute to the breaking down of one scene and setting of the next.  This is an incestuous bunch of characters and this collaboration and theater troupe mentality reminds us of the artifice of the play we are watching and not just the plays within the play that we see that take place within the universe of The Real Thing.  These are not actors who are known for their musical theater chops (well Ewan McGregor did star in Guys and Dolls).  The singing is not polished but it brings a frailty and humanity out in their performances.  Stoppard can be so intellectual and hold audiences at arm's length.  There's something in the singing that collapses that a bit.

With a play about the stories we tell ourselves, the layering of a play within a play, there's one more layer of the artifice using the musical pop song love as an expression of the character's feelings in those moments.  There's something wonderfully immature and carefree about this soundtrack. It is idealized love as it should be without the over intellectualization of Henry/Stoppard. And Henry who is always so detached and analytical is made more romantic in this pop album world.  But this production does not actually break through to real emotion for me except in that final beat.

In a departure from the original play, the final music cue (which has changed during the preview period) has gone from I'm a Believer to God Only Knows. In this final moment, Henry fields a call from Max who is getting remarried.  Henry and Annie are meant to be reflecting on how much they need each other despite ongoing infidelities and their fundamental differences.  Henry kisses Annie goodnight and a song is playing on the radio.  It's God Only Knows.  As Max is talking on the line, Henry stops and starts to sing along with the song.  "God only knows what I'd be without you."   McGregor shows desperation, sadness, and gratitude in this line.  He means it.  It's the only "true" emotion I saw Henry express and of course he's cribbing his emotions from The Beach Boys. And maybe I felt it so much more because I had felt so little all along. 

Gold seems to be taking one of the most accessible Stoppard plays and subverting it ever so slightly. Perhaps it should not be rewarded that he's making it less accessible but I liked the singing--bringing a harmony to a play about discord.  And I liked the visual layering of glass and windows, reflections, and silhouettes. It was visually dynamic but did not necessarily serve the emotional center of the play which I felt was lacking. 

I wish Ewan McGregor had been able to get under Henry's veneer. It's easy to play along with the badinage and Stoppard wit and not stop to feel anything. McGregor didn't quite have the gravity when it was called for. His frequent smiles made him a more jovial character than I expected. He ended up more happily smug than distant or arrogant.  The scene with his daughter should have felt more weight than it did.  Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the guilt-free Annie at the start with total aplomb.  But as her character gets more frustrated and her attention strays I wished her performance had varied.  Everything felt too chilled out and even-keeled for her character.  The conflict between Henry and Annie fizzles because neither actor can seem to touch the fear, anger, loss, or frustration with enough gravitas to give their fights real stakes. On the other hand, I thought Cynthia Nixon handled her character's shift from angry/frustrated wife to softer ex-wife well.  And Ronan Raftery as Billy makes an impression through his few scenes.

I thought the combination of a playwright I often love (with a few exceptions) and a director I often
love (with a few exceptions) would prove to be Broadway dynamite.  But for me the one burning candle of passion in the final moment of the play was the only spark I saw.

*I saw a preview and perhaps before the show was frozen for critical review. I paid for my ticket.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Lippy: Unspoken and Unknown

I am a sucker for deconstruction and Lippy by Irish theater company Dead Centre does deconstruction very well.  Avoiding obvious entry points to a story about a suicide pact they instead engage in a visual and aural storytelling that plays with form and by doing so cracks open the story to take us to new and exciting places. The overall impact is incredibly powerful.  I first saw the work in Edinburgh (it made my Top 10) and was so glad to have another chance to see it in New York.

The piece can be divided into three parts.  First there is a mock talkback for a show we have not seen but lip reading is discussed and demonstrated.  A fatuous moderator played with panache by co-creator Bush Moukarzel interviews an actor.  The actor (Daniel Reardon) tells a story of a police case he was involved in where he read the lips of women on CCTV footage who later entered into a suicide pact. Three sisters and an aunt starved themselves to death (Joanna Banks, Gina Moxley, Catriona Ni Mhurchu, Liv O'Donoghue).  Gruesome and inexplicable in part 2 the actor inserts himself into the house where the women died and time spins backward and forward as we sees them ready themselves to die while the lip reader struggles to understand. In part 3 playwright Mark O'Halloran has crafted a monologue spoken by one of the sisters. Projected in a close up shot of only her mouth shape and context drift away and we are left staring into her mouth--grotesque and distorted.

Despite the surface incongruity of the three parts (and frankly a good deal of humor in part one) they are held together by a powerful soundscape by Adam Welsh, giving us a world where things are not what they seem. People may appear to be speaking but then their voices are distorted. Or it may appear live and then suddenly it is a recording. Looping, distortion, and feedback sculpt the landscape of the play and give it an unexpected emotional depth.

Like the Francis Ford Coppola movie The Conversation we come to understand that we can never quite know everything, even when things are recorded.  No matter how hard we try or lean in and listen, much will be left incomplete.  By illustrating and imagining but not explaining Dead Centre gives these women their privacy whilst still exploring their story.  Relying on movement, sound, and not words, we too can only grapple with potential ideas and not answers.  By focusing on the lip reader and the limits of his ability to interpret the scenes nothing is gospel. It's speculation. He is thwarted at every turn by the women: straining to hear or interference drowning out their words. What the truth is may not be known.

Clarity or answers are never promised. But this company achieves creative cohesion thanks to smart direction (by Ben Kidd and Moukarzel), the unifying themes, the dynamic sound work, and the strong visual tableaux. Maybe the mouth monologue (Beckett homage noted) goes on a bit too long (sometimes so does Beckett) but the stunning and haunting visuals of part 2 may be some of the most inventive and thoughtful stage images I've ever seen and when the lights go up on part 2 (even knowing what was coming) I was filled with an overwhelming sense of anxiety and horror.  It's a punch to the gut (and perhaps to the eardrums) but not easily forgotten. 

Dead Centre (made up of Kidd, Moukarzel, Welsh) is a young company and I look forward to what they come up with next.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Ciphers: Spies and Lies

British playwright Dawn King's modern spy mystery Ciphers is receiving its American premiere in Philadelphia at Inis Nua Theatre, a theater dedicated to contemporary British, Scottish, Welsh and Irish theater. King is best known for her 2011 dystopian play Foxfinder and Ciphers is her most recent effort. 

Ciphers requires more suspended disbelief than I could muster and it doesn't feel like it delivers on all it promises. Foxfinder is by far a more satisfying and meaty endeavor (and worth a read since it seems unlikely anyone will be producing it here--though they should). But Ciphers offers acting and directing challenges and this indie theater company rises to the occasion on a small budget to give this flawed play a solid production.

The story is laid out in non-chronological order and its up to the audience to decipher the interconnected plot with actors playing doubled characters. Mild mannered Justine (Isa St. Clair) is hired by MI5 for her language skills and soon finds herself working in the field. However when she's found dead of an apparent suicide, and the news of her secret job becomes known, her sister Kerry (also St. Clair) commits to finding out what really happened.  Is her death related to an affair with a married man and painter Kai (J. Paul Nicholas)? Her assignment to work a Muslim contact, Karim (also Nicholas), in the local community? Her undercover role working with the Russian ambassador (John Morison) at the Russian embassy? Is it suicide or is it murder?

Despite the twists and turns of the plot director Tom Reing keeps things clear as can be in an intentionally complicated story (though one dramatic moment confused me but I think it was meant to be left unclear). Stylish and frankly lush projections by Janelle Kaufmann (some like beautiful watercolor paintings) make each scene distinct and either explicitly show where we are or creatively hint at place.  They gave this production a feeling of extra polish.  The flexible set with fold down tables and hidden cabinets by Meghan Jones makes good use of the space.

In particular J. Paul Nicholas is a stand-out in the cast. His performances as Kai and Karim are nuanced and specific. His physical presence changes with each character.  At times I almost forgot it was the same actor. He also mined the dark humor in the script well.  When St. Clair shares the stage with him her performance is enriched. In other scenes she could feel at times playing the roles on the surface (one sister is emotional, the other sister is remote) and not quite inhabiting the soul of the character. But especially when she was in scenes with Nicholas as Kai, she went deeper.

It's a not wholly effective spy thriller but a solid effort from a company focused on exploring contemporary work from the UK and Ireland.  Next up is David Leddy's fantastic Long Live the Little Knife, and I for one am excited to see that again. 

I received a complimentary ticket to attend.

Disgraced: Bearing Responsibility

A raw wound of a play that leaves you feeling pretty depressed about humanity and our efforts to see each other, our selves, and the biases plaguing us. Complex, layered, nuanced, and funny Ayad Akhtar's play is nothing short of brilliant. Rolling up on New York audiences with a knowledge of who is sitting in the audience and making sure he calls us out on our own behavior, no one can leave this play without bearing some responsibility. It's a rare thing for new theater these days and even rarer it feels like on the Broadway stage.

Amir (Hari Dhillon) and his wife Emily (Gretchen Mol) appear to be a wealthy, interracial couple living the high life in New York. Amir is an M&A attorney and Emily a painter and live in an apartment to give every New Yorker envy. Emily's obsession with Islam and art puts her at odds with Amir who was raised Muslim but now views himself as an apostate.  As Emily's star rises, Amir's is starting to waver.  Things come to a head when Jory (Karen Pittman) and Isaac (Josh Radnor) come to dinner. Jory is Amir's colleague at his law firm and Isaac is an art dealer interested in Emily's work.  As the evening goes on assumptions are made about everyone at the party by the party guests (as well as the audience). But Akhtar is concerned with undermining those assumptions.

Dinner goes off the rails and Amir and Isaac go head-to-head about religion, terrorism, Israel, Islam, and almost every third rail of potential conversation.  Each takes stabs and jabs at the other, scoring points but losing sympathy, but are they speaking from their experience, parroting what others have said, meaning what they say, or riling up each other for other reasons?  Do our view of their views reflect our biases or the play's? 

Every character reveals something troubling. We have to question everyone and in doing so we have to question our own perspective of what we are seeing. When someone is offensively referred to as "an animal" in the play and then an audience member says the same thing about that character during the play (!!!) has Akhtar made his point and/or has that audience member missed the point entirely.

I feel like seeing Disgraced and The Real Thing together is instructive. They are very different plays with different points to make. But there's something about the way we wear character in each play that feels like it's coming from a similar place. The roles we play for each other (and Disgraced takes that theme further to show how race and religion can cast a light on the character we project or try to suppress)--the lies we tell the world and the lies we tell each other.  What husbands do for their wives even when it's contrary to their own interest.  What people do out of love or obsession.  What we do to hold onto something we want.  Both Stoppard and Akhtar are exploring "thinking" and "feeling" in very interesting ways.  (And maybe there's also an interesting parallel in how pop culture can be a tool of the over-educated to supplant their own ideas/emotions).

I saw Disgraced with Hari Dhillon at the Bush Theatre in London (directed by Nadia Fall) and his performance has grown tremendously with this new production under the guidance of Kimberly Senior. He always carried himself with a strength and imperiousness that worked well for the character but I thought he struggled with the humble side of the character in London.   But here he crosses that divide quite well (even if there might be some over-gesticulating on the way there).  His undoing has become very effective and he seems to shrink in size as his fortunes fall. Karen Pittman is fantastic as Jory. She's no nonsense and her marital issues are played with stinging sarcasm.  Josh Radnor makes the role of Isaac a little lighter and funnier which throws off the power balance here a little.  But Gretchen Mol's lightweight Emily is the real problem.  I think all four characters need to be very solid to keep the play's arguments, voices, and shifting alliances in balance.  Mol makes her character seem inconsequential. Kirsty Bushell in London made her a vital presence and her naïveté that is exposed by the play's end comes as a devastating shock for her whereas here it feels like a foregone conclusion since Mol's Emily seems shaky with her beliefs to begin with.

Seeing the show in New York is a whole different audience experience.  It's a lot harder to hear the conversation about September 11th here and New York audiences tend to be a lot more vocal (horrific "animal" comment aside). Nadia Fall's traverse staging in London made the dinner party feel like it was happening on your lap and I missed the shocking intimacy of that.  It feels like it has lost some intensity moving to a bigger house and in a more open staging.  But it's an important play and one that more audiences should experience.  There's no question it won't be shaken off easily.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Fortress of Solitude: Flying Too High

At some point during Fortress of Solitude I felt like like been taken to a music trivia night and if you know me that's a really mean thing to take me to.  I've never really been a big music fan. I was a movie buff growing up and I could probably guess a film in three frames but I'd be hard pressed to Name That Tune even after hearing the song completely without being able to Shazam it.

The creative team behind Fortress of Solitude, director Daniel Aukin, book writer Itamar Moses, and composer Michael Friedman, have opted to make oblique references to time in this sprawling musical based on the book by Jonathan Lethem.  Mostly we get clues to the era via music. Funk, soul, rap, and ballads that hint at the 70's and 80's of Brooklyn. But most of the time I felt lost. Not just because of my lack of music encyclopedic knowledge but because no one was using the music to tell the characters' stories.

For the entire first act I was flummoxed as to who the characters were (ok two little boys whose moms had walked out--why did we spend like an hour on this straightforward situation), what they were feeling, who they were to each other (Is someone gay? Is everyone gay? Is no one gay?), how old anyone was, what year it was, but mostly why do I care. Also superheroes.  You definitely lost me at superheroes.

I kept thinking about how well Fun Home (staged in the same theater) quickly laid out who the characters were, what the dilemma was, and got very quickly into the emotional sinew of the story. Here the songs were fun, smart, and colorful throwbacks to different musical eras BUT WHY WAS I HERE?

The story is meant to be a coming of age tale of two boys Dylan (Adam Chanler-Berat) who is white and Mingus (Kyle Beltran) who is black. Both living with their Dads in Brooklyn in the 70's and struggling...that's about all I got.  There was a magic ring* and maybe they could fly so they could tag things with graffiti.  Fuck if I could tell. Told from Dylan's perspective we are given the "white boy"'s view of this time, place, and circumstance.**  But it turns out Dylan is a poor narrator--who they were to each other and what they meant to each other was left a mystery.  Even if Dylan didn't know his feelings, I wish the creative team had seen fit to tell us.  Because the lyrics or book didn't tell me, all I had was the performances to rely on. I always find Adam Chanler-Berat to be the same mopey puppy in every show. Here it was no different.  Kyle Beltran has a gorgeous voice and played a sweet and mysterious Mingus but I didn't understand their relationship at all. Then they go to different high schools, they grow apart, and then "shit goes down."

Act 2 is a chapter on white guilt, privilege, and going home again. It was clearer what was happening but everything came off so buffed down to its essential parts that it all fell into stereotypes which left me uncomfortable.  I suspect the novel might fill in a lot of holes in its 500 pages. But boiled down here too much time is spent on unnecessary things (did we need a gospel number from grandpa; how many times do we need to be haunted by the mom leaving; why do you even bother having female characters if they are just there as window dressing) and what we see on stage is either too subtle to be perceived (unless perhaps you had read the book) or too starkly obvious.  Everything seemed to fall to one of these extremes and we end up in very black or white spaces.  The obvious gray areas of the subject matter were lost. 

Each song, moment, and scene needs to tell us something. Each flashback, musical interlude, or big showy number needs to add up to something.  The songs were gorgeous on their own but they were not serving the narrative of the musical.  For all my criticism, I could see the soaring ambition here to capture a lot of important social issues, history, and a very specific place in time.  It was great to see a largely African-American cast in a musical and diverse musical sounds on stage but in the end I got a misty, water-colored memory of Brooklyn in the 70's but that was not enough to be a fully-formed musical.

* I hated Lord of the Rings. This ring was doing me no favors either. 
**It was disappointing to see a large, talented African-American cast left to illustrate the white boy's story rather than given a voice of their own. Even though we get windows into some characters lives it is all from Dylan's perspective which, as told here, made it limited and problematic. I understand that may have been the intent but I think the production needed to address these things if the narrator was so unreliable and would not/could not. Maybe it was trying with the throwaway scene at the end with Dylan's girlfriend but that was far too late in the show for a critical eye on the proceedings.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Daniel Kitson: Jingle Bell Rock Edition

Daniel Kitson is performing a Christmas show in London the first week in December.

From Dec. 1-6 he will be performing at Battersea Arts Centre.  Basically all he has said is "I may
wear a costume and there might be snow in it."

Sign me up. Tickets will be on sale at noon (UK time) on the 22nd of October. Note there are certain limits to prevent touts. Tickets are limited to 6 per person and you will collect them the night of the show only and you will need ID to pick them up. 
And don't despair if you are not in London.  Kitson's recent email promised there would be worldwide touring (well UK, Australia, and America).  I know the Australian fans have been restless (and rightly so) so this should come as welcome news. 

And very exciting he says that there will likely be a revival of Tree with Tim Key in the "early part of next year."  I saw Tree in Manchester in 2013 during a sort of ridiculous day trip on a Megabus and I would very much like to revisit it.  I thought it was extraordinary.

He has also mentioned a less specific happening: "something unlike anything I’ve ever done in the early part of 2016."

So Christmas has indeed come early.